Climate change endangers Herschel Island

Herschel Island is melting. Graves are being unearthed. And the island’s historic whaling village, dating back more than a century, is under…

Herschel Island is melting.

Graves are being unearthed.

And the island’s historic whaling village, dating back more than a century, is under threat.

A recent United Nations report, citing vulnerable heritage sites around the world, highlights these changes to the Yukon island and blames climate change.

“Some caskets are tumbling with the slumping soil and are being broken into pieces and pushed out,” says the report.

“Some archeological evidence of early human occupation has already been lost due to ground destabilization and erosion influenced by melting permafrost, wave action and storm surges.”

Over the years, Doug Olynyk, historic sites manager for the Yukon government, has seen caskets come jutting out of the island’s soil.

“I’ve seen three or four at a time,” he said Thursday.

“And as they’re exposed we just try to cover them up again.”

Herschel Island is just “a big pile of muck,” said Olynyk.

Carried into the ocean by the toe of a glacier that covered much of Canada, the island froze in place.

“It’s just a bunch of loose sediment bound together by permafrost,” he said.

Now, with the warming climate, this pile of frozen muck is melting and shifting.

Which is why more and more caskets are popping out of the ground.

There are more than 100 Inuvialuit graves on the island, 12 whaler graves from the1890s and several RCMP caskets from the middle of the last century.

But the need to rebury caskets is only one source of Olynyk’s headaches.

On a spit, only a couple of metres above sea level, is a well-maintained whaling village under threat from seasonal storms, rising sea levels and an eroding shoreline.

In the last century, sea levels rose 20 centimetres, said Olynyk.

“And scientists predict they’re going to rise another 50 centimetres in the next 100 years,” he said.

“When that happens, combined with wave action, it’s going to be devastating for the buildings.”

Olynyk has already seen one building destroyed by storms, and has had to move three others — one of them more than once.

In 2003, the Northern Whaling and Trading Company store and warehouse was moved five metres back from the receding shoreline.

Two years later, the trading company and two more buildings were moved an additional five metres.

A storm crashed pack-ice into the trading company’s shed and it wasn’t repairable, said Olynyk.

“We even had neoprene sandbags in front of the buildings.”

Herschel Island has always seen storms, but the warming climate has made them worse.

With permanent sea ice receding, the ocean stays open longer, lengthening the storm season.

“The Inuvialuit are talking about changes in the weather — the longer open-water season and bigger storms,” said Olynyk.

This year, Olynyk plans to put together a strategic salvage plan for the whaling village.

The whole thing may have to be moved, he said.

A whaling village that no longer sits beside the ocean would compromise its historic value, he added.

“But maybe it would be balanced by the fact that it’s a great example of how climate change has ruined our heritage.”

Unfortunately, not everything on Herschel can be moved.

Sharing the spit with the village are a number of semi-subterranean houses built by the Thule people.

The structures date back more than 1,000 years.

The houses were built during the massive migration of Inuit across the Western Arctic, said Olynyk.

And 10 have been excavated.

The whole archeological site is close to the ocean.

Herschel Island was designated a national historic event by the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and is now being considered for a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

Herschel is a little piece of Eden in the Arctic, said Olynyk.

In July, waves of wildflowers flood the island and the slopes around the settlement are blue with lupines.

Birds nest and breed on the spit, and in the winter caribou, muskoxen, polar bears and grizzlies wander across the island.

“It’s a small little ecosystem,” said Olynyk.

Part of ancient Beringia, the 110-square-kilometre island has it all: mountains, boreal forest, tundra, wetlands, coastal plains and Arctic seacoast.

Herschel sees about 600 visitors a year, most from the two cruise ships that anchor offshore.

The Pacific Steam Whaling Company building, erected in 1893, is the oldest in the settlement and acts as an interpretive centre, while the rangers live in the old radio-transmission building.

 Herschel is one of the places in the world that “strikes wonder, like the snows of Kilimanjaro, and the Great Barrier Reef,” said Olynyk.

The UN report says all of these places are being affected by climate change, he said.

“The UN has previously pointed out the threats climate change poses to ecological systems, to economies and to communities that are living on the ocean.

“And this is just another shade, or facet, of the damage that climate change can bring about.

“Our basic human values and the roots of our civilization are basically being eroded.”